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Should Christians Ever Swear An Oath?

by John Waddey(33)

In his famous Sermon on the Mount , Jesus said, swear not at all " (Matt. 5:34). Taking this saying as absolute, many pious saints have refused to take any kind of oath lest they violate Christ’s prohibition.

To understand any Scripture, we must understand the context in which it stands and the situation that may have prompted it. In first century Jewish society, swearing was a common practice. The Law spoke to this matter in two ways. First they were told, " Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain... " (Ex. 20:7). Secondly, they were warned, " When a man voweth a vow unto Jehovah, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word... " (Ex. 30:2).

The Jews were very scrupulous in not speaking God’s name in a vain way. However, they were very slippery in their use of oaths and vows, The legalist teaching of the Pharisees taught them that only oaths bearing direct references to God were binding. Any oath that avoided such a reference to God could be broken without penalty. This explains Jesus’ illustration " I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King; Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black... " (Matt. 5:33-36).

These illustrations were typical of what one might hear in daily conversation. Such oaths were deceptive. They were used for dishonest purposes. These Jesus clearly prohibits. Rather than such elaborate, deceptions, his disciples were to simply answer yes or no. This implies that their conduct and reputation for honesty should be such that there would never be a need for swearing. People would demand an oath of a person when they were dealing with them and were not sure of their honesty. We should live so no one will doubt our truthfulness and honesty.

To put the prohibition in clear perspective we see two categories of forbidden oaths:

1. Frivolous oaths that take God’s name in vain, with no intention of binding the speaker.

2. Deceptive or evasive oaths whereby a man would solemnly swear to tell the truth or do a certain thing, yet by carefully avoiding the name of God, he would not feel personally obliged to honor his oath. Of course the other person who was given the assurance backed by this oath would be deceived and disappointed when it was broken.

One verse of the Bible taken alone can be easily misapplied. In the case of swearing and oaths, we find the following in other verses.

* " Wherein God, being minded to show more abundantly unto the heirs of the promise the immutability of his counsel, interposed with an oath... " (Heb. 6:17).

* Caiaphas, the high priest, said to Jesus, " I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou art the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus said, Thou has said... " (Matt. 26:63-64). An adjuration was the most solemn oath in Jewish law. The Master responded, " Yes, it is as you say " (New International Version).

* In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul said, " I call God for a witness upon my soul.... " (1:23).

* When defending his record to the Galatians, the Apostle said, " Now touching the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not... " (Gal. 1:20).

In these passages, we find God placing himself under an oath, Jesus testifying under oath and Paul calling God as his witness. These passage clearly demonstrate that not all oaths are sinful and wrong. What then should we conclude? We should not engage in silly, frivolous oaths for this takes God’s name in vain. We should never offer an insincere or dishonest oath that is designed to deceive, an oath which we have no intention of honoring. However, there are some situations so important and so serious that an oath is appropriate. For example when an elected official takes his oath of office, when we testify in a court of law, when we are sworn into a government job such as the military or law-enforcement.

To argue that all oaths are sinful and must be avoided is to say that Paul, Jesus and God sinned. The correct interpretation is we should live with such honesty and truthfulness that no one will demand our oath. We must never take God’s name is a frivolous way. We should never deceive another by using a hollow oath. A simple yes or no should be a sufficient answer for most of life’s questions. We can however take the serious oaths such as mentioned above. In so doing we do not sin.

Article submitted Friday, May 15, 2009 & read 1812 times.

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